A real bathing beauty?

Cast iron Victorian baths are once again de rigueur, writes Felicity Cannell - cold comfort for those who opted for plastic in avocado
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The Independent Online
Cast iron baths: don't you just love 'em? They look so impressive standing squat and independent in the middle of the room, like an arrogant bulldog - it's no wonder they are the height of bathroom chic these days. But if you're thinking about buying one, I'll let you into a secret - when it comes to bath efficiency, plastic is fantastic. Just like a Victorian house, a Victorian bath is draughty, impossible to insulate and costs a fortune to heat. Only those who are willing to suffer for beauty should read on.

The first enamelled cast iron bath appeared around 1880 and the last to be made in this country rolled out of the furnace 11 years ago. Yet despite its almost unbreakable qualities, 100 years of production has left fewer fine examples than you would think. They started to disappear in the 1960s. The clinical free-standing white bath had been standard issue to many households since the 1920s. Some said that the lower classes kept coal in theirs.

It was time to move to something more tasteful. So in the 1960s and 1970s, countless old baths were thrown on the scrap heap as trendy young things plumped for lurid coloured bathroom suites in nice cosy plastic.

Even now, a builder who comes across an old example will often find it easier and more economical to smash the thing up and throw it in a skip than spend time and effort removing it intact. Says one, "If it is antique- looking it will invariably weigh a ton. We get next to nothing from the salvage yards, which then seem to sell them on for an absolute fortune."

But the destruction of the grand Edwardian and Victorian examples goes back to the second world war. The hard-water dripping tap left a ghastly permanent stain. New washers were impossible to come by, as was anyone prepared to clean it as domestic staff set off to work in the factories. And as for Vim, powerful enough to scour the hide off a rhino, it proved the ruin of many a glossy enamelled bath.

Today an original cast iron bath is becoming an object of desire. Expect whoops when you show it to guests. 'Is it a real one or a reproduction?' they'll say and turn green when you say yes, it's original. So go ahead and drag in the old tub from the garden where you've kept it to store the beers at parties, but don't balk at the price of restoration.

The cast iron bath is one of the most difficult pieces of household furniture to renovate. Few of us scrubbing away the tidemark will realise the skill involved in producing that shining finish. Re-enamelling is generally essential for a stained or scratched bath to live up to its position in the bathroom. And it must be done properly. Painted-on enamel will blister and flake off in no time. Synthetic enamel, low-baked in a kiln, looks dull and lifeless and can stain from a drop of nail varnish. The real thing, vitreous enamel, will have your bath looking, and feeling, as good as new for well over 100 years.

Vitreous enamelling requires the bath to be stripped back to the metal and baked in a furnace. It is then removed and, while hot, powdered glass "frits", are sifted or sprayed over the interior surface, which then fuse on. The bath is returned to the furnace and the process is repeated four or five times. When cool the surface will have a deep white shine, almost like glass, which of course is virtually what it is.

At Quality Porcelain Enamelling Ltd (QPE) in Hednesford, Staffordshire, re-enamelling starts at pounds 550 plus VAT. Drummonds of Bramley, in Guildford, chooses to restore its baths as they were originally enamelled, by hand. However, since such baths are no longer manufactured in this country, thanks to EC intervention - no open furnaces allowed - we seem to have lost the art. So two or three times a year the company ships out a lorryload to Russia where open furnaces are still in use, and skilled craftsmen still have their place. The starting price for re-enamelling is pounds 950, but with reproductions easily costing pounds 1,000, restoring Great Aunt Gladys's original will give you an unequalled example of the "real thing".

If the only bath you inherit is the plastic avocado green one, pick up the genuine article from a reputable salvage company. But don't forget the taps. At around pounds 100 for a sparkling original pair, it may be better to go for something new that looks the part, but doesn't have such a small spout that it offers nothing more than a dribble after two months' fur has built up.

And when you have it in place, why not become a real bath bore and trace its history. "Every major town had a furnace", says Tony Swayne of Drummonds, "and when baths became the in thing many towns made their own, with a distinguishing trademark - the feet". Start by checking whether your tub has claw feet, lion's feet or ball and claw.

Mr Swayne also offers advice on the perfect bathtime experience. Big powerful taps are a must but only after a smidgeon of cold so as not to damage the bath. "Warm it up and heaven breaks loose," he says.

These are probably the truest words, recognised, belatedly, by anyone who has shivered in a cold bathroom as the hulking great metal bath absorbs whatever heat the water initially held. By the time the bath itself has warmed up, the tank is empty of hot water and you are wrinkled as a prune.

Personally, I have long experience, up until I left home, of the misery of lukewarm bathing. Nothing will ever induce me to succumb to the spiteful beauty of a fine Victorian tub in my own home.